Your Best Turkey Ever: We Break Down The Bird And The Schedule

Yipes, how I hated Thanksgiving and Christmas as a kid. Well, the dinners, anyway: As if the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes (ewww!) and nondairy whipped dessert topping-topped pumpkin pie (blech!) weren't bad enough. The turkey, though. Breast meat as dry as Tutankhamen's toenails. Legs so greasy and tough they should have auditioned for "American Graffiti." And gravy with exactly one-billionth the pizazz of a lecture on 14th-century agrarian economics.

Fortunately, as a grown-up, I've discovered a way to eliminate these problems (no, not ordering Chinese). Follow me.

Why you need to learn this

Look, at first blush, this may seem like a huge pain, but trust me: Follow these instructions, and I guarantee you'll have a meal that, had you lived in ancient Greece, undoubtedly there would have been epic poems written about you. Like the "Iliad," only about you, cooking turkey. Call it, "The Turkiad."

The steps you take

Right off the bat, let's find you a good turkey. Stay away from the frozen bowling balls. For one thing, they've had more injections than Dolly Parton. For another, they read Solzhenitsyn and think, "Wish we had had it that good."

Go to your local butcher, someplace like The Butcher & Larder at Local Foods (1427 W. Willow St.), the little shop right behind that great club The Hideout, off the Elston corridor at North Avenue. Get a locally raised, humanely slaughtered bird. Sure, you'll pay a little more, but, come on ... the injections ... the turkey gulags ... Plus, you're supporting the local economy.

Now that we've got your bird sorted, we're going to hammer through what you're going to do with it, because it's a three-day process, and the work starts Tuesday before Thanksgiving.


Break down bird, brine pieces, roast bones and prep veggies (about 1 hour of prep).

To break down the bird, remove the boneless breasts from the carcass, and take off the legs and wings. Wait! You mean you don't know how to do that? Oh, dear criminy Pete! Fortunately, Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder, says the butchers there can break down the bird for you at no extra charge. Lots of butchers will, in fact.

Ask them to give you two each: boneless breasts, wings, thighs, drumsticks. And, of course, a bag of giblets, including the neck, along with the carcass, preferably chopped into three or four pieces (easier to fit in the stockpot).

To make the brine, dissolve 3/4 cup each of salt and sugar in a gallon of water. Submerge the breasts, legs and thighs, cover and refrigerate overnight. If it's cold enough outside, I'll just put it all in a brining bag and leave it like a mob hit in the trunk of my car.

After you've done that, roast the turkey carcass along with the wings in a hot oven (425-ish) until they're nice and brown, about 30 to 60 minutes. While they're roasting, roughly chop a couple of onions, two carrots and four ribs of celery into about six pieces each. Brown them in a little fat in a saute pan or in the hot oven. The amount of onion you have should be roughly equal to the combined amount of carrot and celery. This is called mirepoix. The total weight of mirepoix should be roughly one fifth (20 percent) of the weight of the carcass and wings combined. And remember, I'm saying "roughly." This is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. When the turkey parts and mirepoix are all nice and brown, pack everything up together and store in the fridge overnight.


Dry the turkey and make the stock (30 minutes of prep and six hours of simmering).

Take the turkey pieces from the brine, and set the brine free by pouring it down the drain. Put the turkey pieces on a wire rack over a sheet pan and set them in the refrigerator overnight to dry.

To make stock, put the roasted turkey carcass, wings and mirepoix in a stockpot. Cover them with cold water, and add a couple of bay leaves, a bunch of parsley, a teaspoon-ish of dried thyme or a small bunch of fresh thyme, and 5 to 10 peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 4 to 6 hours. When the stock is done, pass through a fine-meshed strainer and chill it in an ice bath until cool. Wrap it and store it in the fridge until Thursday.


Braise the legs, roast the breasts and make the sauce.

Note: For smaller dinner parties, cook only one each: breast, leg and thigh. And freeze the rest along with some turkey stock for another day.

To braise the legs and thighs: Sear them on all sides in a little fat in a pot just big enough to hold them comfortably in one layer. While they're searing, roughly chop an onion, a carrot and a couple ribs of celery. Remove the browned legs and add the vegetables along with two or three cloves of smashed garlic. When the veggies are brown, deglaze the pan with a little white wine if you like, then put the legs back in and add enough turkey stock to almost cover them completely. Add some fresh herbs, too — thyme, sage, parsley, whatever you like. Crank the heat, and bring it to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low to braise at a bare simmer. Braise until the meat is falling off the bone, 60 to 90 minutes.

While the legs braise, roast the breasts: Make a couple of bacon mats to cover the breasts. Weave slices of bacon as you would strips of dough for a lattice pie crust. Sprinkle the breasts with salt and pepper, then cover each with a bacon blanket. Roast side by side in a 375-degree oven to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about an hour. Remove from the oven and rest on a cutting board for about 15 minutes before slicing.

While the breasts rest, remove the legs from the braising liquid. To make your sauce, what we Amerkins like to call "gravy," you're going to need about 1 ounce of roux (equal parts by weight butter and flour) for every cup of liquid. Strain and degrease your braising liquid, discarding the used-up veggies and herbs. Melt your butter, then whisk in the flour and cook, stirring, until it turns a light brown, then whisk in the liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, then remove from the heat until right before you're ready to serve.

(NOTE: For giblet gravy, season all the organ-y bits like the heart, gizzard and liver, and saute them in fat until cooked through. When they're done, chop them up and add them to your gravy. You could also flavor it with sauteed mushrooms or braised pearl onions, a little cream, some fresh herbs of your choice — whatever moves you.)

While the sauce is simmering, carve the breasts and legs, and put the slices on a warm platter. Finish the sauce by whisking in an ounce or two of whole butter. Serve everything immediately and confidently, then sit back and wait for the adulation.